standardization- the locus of issue?

December 17, 2010

I cannot help but wonder if, in our efforts to understand and address the reality of very real achievement gaps, if we went down a very wrong path by looking to testing as the solution in the first place.  In her book the Death and Life of the Great American School System, Diane Ravitch mentions Deborah Meier’s idea that our schools need to be “data informed” rather than “data driven” (p. 228) and I think there is important wisdom there- she does not suggest ‘test score informed’ vs ‘test score driven’.  It’s time to re-evaluate our conception of data that will best inform high quality of teaching and learning.

In addition to thinking about testing, I am also thinking a lot about standardization and wondering if this focus, too, might be something we are erroneously attributing to solution and thinking it may actually be part of the problem.  Until lately, I argued that there is nothing wrong with standardized assessment, it is the high stakes USE of that assessment that is so problematic.  Now I am not so sure.

Here’s some of that thinking… the issue with standardized measurement is that we try to measure common achievement in common content to common ends- BUT children come from uncommon backgrounds (within and across cultural and language groups, gender, age, purpose and motivation) and this results in disparate ways of being and interacting in the world. We also recognize that there are significant gaps that can be mapped to some of the above attributes. I wonder if we don’t have all, or maybe we even are focused on attributes that matter less vs the ones that matter more…  So, to be clear, the notion of closing academic gaps, particularly providing access to high level thinking and content in all schools for all children is critical- I am not arguing against THAT… but I am very much questioning if we are on a path that could ever actually get us there.

So, to challenge my thinking about what this looks like on a large scale, I recently had the opportunity to consider significant gaps between different children from different families in my daughter’s grade level.  On the surface, the 6 children all seemed similar- educated parents, literate backgrounds, English speaking, school oriented, attending a school in which the program is designed to support engagement and academic achievement appropriate in early childhood (to the best they can while adhering to current district, state and federal policy.)  These 6 children are all making significant growth, developing in language, literacy and content understandings.  But, ‘success’ and ‘achievement’ looks radically different for each of them- as they approach and attach to very different elements of the curriculum and perform VERY differently on standardized assessments.  My consideration of these specific children has led my thinking down new paths and I do not think the answer for these kids is to get them to all be able to perform on these tests, or even be standardized to achieve the same things.  The individual approach to thinking, creative application of ideas and ways of expressing themselves should not be fit into ‘common expectations’.  The normal variation in these 9 year olds does not need to be ‘fixed’.  Those not performing highly on standardized tests do not need to be ‘saved’. They need latitude and engagement and highly informed teachers who can understand who they are, how they learn and ways to access high level thinking and interacting (spoken and written) about ideas.

When I think of a response to what other standardized measurement do we need… I wonder if ‘other … measurement’ is what is important, and perhaps it is the standardization part that doesn’t work?

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